Ween – [Discography]

Ween – [Discography]

Friday, 02 October 2009

In art, as is the case in life, it has been proven time and again that the population of intelligent people in the world fall into one of two groups: those that consider themselves to be smart and those that simply are. So what’s the difference? Those that assume themselves to be intelligent usually come by the notion honestly – they might be scholarly, they might be good (if fairly humorless) conversationalists, they may be the ones that their friends bring their problems to because they’re regarded as adept, level-headed problem solvers, they may even have proven to be capable of producing dialogue or work that’s regarded as cornerstone to the primary theories in their field – but they lack a reflective quality that the honestly intelligent possess; that’s the difference between being bookish and intellectual. Those genuinely bright individuals are the ones that are able to look at what they know to be true versus the practices indulged so regularly that they’re considered to be “right” by the population at large, see the inherent comic value in the disparity between the two viewpoints and celebrate them rather than attempt to reconcile with them or try to bend others to their will and opinion. The by-product of that (some would say passive aggressive) mindset is invariably an all-consuming sense of humour and need to laugh; sometimes it manifests as poking fun at others (how implicit or explicit the mockery is usually depends upon the personality of the individual and how often their flaws have been mocked and/or dissected by others) and sometimes it’s only a matter of chronicling it as satire – but either way it’s an irresistible urge that seeks to level the playing field by comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable.

In short, as Aristotle said, “Wit is educated insolence.”

That wit, insolence and satire is personified in the stage personas that Ween founding members Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo created (Gene and Dean Ween respectively) as well as the music they write together, but the subversive nature of it has proven to be the most infectious quality of the band and is where their intelligence shows best. Ignoring the band’s back-story revolving around a god/legend called Boognish, since forming in 1984 the band has self-described the timbres of its music as being very brown in colour, and that statement undoubtedly conjures more provocative images than any otherworldly or religious totem could because the ambiguity of it raises still more questions.

Brown? What could brown mean? Why brown? What’s the implication?

There are many actually.

One such possibility revolves around the fact that since 1704 scientists and theorists of a multitude of disciplines – mathematicians, physicists, philosophers and more – beginning with Isaac Newton have been attempting to discern the solid relationships between colour and the musical scale. In 1734, a French Jesuit monk, Louis Bertrand Castel, designed the first clavecin oculaire – a light organ – a new musical instrument which would simultaneously produce both sound and the “correct” corresponding colours to the notes played. Since then, a host of learned men have attempted to refine Castel’s correlation between sound and colour but each researcher’s findings and/or proposals haven’t exactly lined up with one another. Each developer has seen different colours as sitting at different points on the musical scale; for Castel, brown was G#, Russian pianist and composer Alexander Scriabin (considered to be the primary figure of Russian Symbolism in music) deigned brown to be an F and German author Theodor Seemann saw brown as being synonymous with A# among other theories. In his book, The Forms Of Colour [Mit Pr, 1986], Karl Gerstner dove deeper into the correlation between sound and colour, contending that, “dark and light colours do actually have effects which are comparable to low and high musical tones. Dark colours are sonorous, powerful, mighty like deep tones. But light colours like those of The Impressionists, act, when they alone make a whole work, with the magic of high voices: floating, light, youthful, carefree, and probably cool too.”

According to Gerstner, both red and brown tones (which he contends are synonymous) could represent “fan fares with a persistent, intrusive, powerful tone… and parallels can be drawn with powerful drum beats.”

That would explain why Ween enlisted arguably the best drummer in rock n’ roll since John Bonham (Claude Coleman Jr) but, by the same token, the band’s claim that their sound is brown may also simply be a paraphrased reference to the infamous “brown note” (a low octave infrasound above E# at 3-6 Hz) said to cause humans to lose control of their bowels if they’re exposed to it.

Or it might be totally meaningless; “brown” sound may be a term used to qualify a release by the band that is low-fi and terrible, yet great somehow in its terribly low fidelity and another chunk of mythos manufactured by the band to get listeners guessing, keep fans entranced and as a gateway of curiosity for the uninitiated. Regardless, in spite of remaining totally off of the mainstream radar, Ween’s fan base has grown to staggering proportions over the last twenty-five years. Concert theatre tours often sell out almost completely on a regular basis, college radio stations have been known to do marathon days playing nothing but Ween music and, since the wildfire growth of the internet, the proliferation of fan sites, audio sharing (old, discontinued albums, bootlegs, live shows, myriad other paraphernalia) communities – including the band’s own browntracker.net torrent site – as well as every other online permutation of adulation that the minds of techno-savvy fans can concoct. What sets Ween miles apart from its peers is that they’re one of a very short list of bands that can safely say that they have remained largely independent in their business practices; while Freeman and Melchiondo have included other band members to help present the music to a live audience over the years, they’ve retained the rights to their music, produced many of Ween’s records themselves or with the same crew of personnel and changed record labels as has served their purpose as well as keeping their own indie boutique label (Chocodog) to get their brownest releases into the hands of the devout. They’ve called every shot in their career and done things their own way every step of the way while their music – which started out as a very punk and indie rock-inspired entity – has been allowed to grow and mutate to include elements of every imaginable genre including (but certainly not limited to) soul, country and western, progressive rock, stoner rock, island jazz and many, many more. In Ween’s eyes, it’s all music and so all of for grabs and piracy and, while they may have started out modestly, they’ve since grown like a musical amoeba; incorporating everything they touch. It’s all fair game and available for play and Ween has taken every opportunity to obviously tip every sacred cow they come upon. However, with all of that information in hand, it goes without saying that the band requires a modicum of intelligence in its fan base; those that don’t get the gag often dismiss Ween simply as weird and nothing more but those that do get it recognize that, while the band is indeed “weird” in their approach to thematic composition and their indulgence of off-beat imagery that no other band has attempted to work into a pop idiom (scan “I’ll Be Your Jonny on the Spot” if you think it can’t be true), but that may also make them the smartest rock band in music history because they go out of their way to be accessible to everyone. That’s the trick the band plays so well; Ween’s music is a definitive expression of pop at its core  but it is made on the band’s own terms and with their unusual proclivities hung on the sleeve of each song so that no one can miss it.

Crucial Squeegie Lip
(Bird O’ Prey, 1986)
There’s no nice way to say it, but there is simply no impression as to what Ween was capable of or the heights to which they’d ascend in the very beginning. In keeping with the dogmatic practices of independent rock in the 1980s, Ween’s first tape was self-recorded, self produced and distributed on a label so small that even the internet doesn’t offer much in the way of researchable backround other than just saying that Ween put a couple of releases out on Bird O’ Prey (further in-depth research reveals that it was the band’s own imprint). The Crucial Squeegie Lip was recorded on precisely no budget too – something that becomes obvious from the moment Dean and Gene start talking back and forth to open the proceedings with “Introview” – and when the caustic feedback that kicks off “Talk To Me About Erica Glabb,” listeners are presented with a very different image of Ween than they might expect. With howled, overdriven and overloaded vocals, tinny and trashy guitars, signals cutting out on the fly and lyric sheets that bounce between inchoate and incomprehensible, tracks like “Go!” (where the complete lyric sheet consists of screaming the title over and over in different levels of scream), “Jessica” (same), “Murphy Flattens His Frustrations” which sounds like a mic check performed by GG Allin) and “Ingrown Mayo” (the Tasmanian Devil’s mic check) are an exercise in tedium and bear a striking resemblance to those two-track (if they’re lucky) recordings that kids in their first high school hardcore band used to make before computers made it possible to make such endeavours sound really good.

Realistically though, even this generally abysmal tape is quite an achievement – principle performers Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo were, after all, only sixteen years old when they made it, and not all of the songs are totally worthless either. In addition to a really grainy, embryonic attempt at “You Fucked Up” (which would end up opening GodWeenSatan: The Oneness several years later and still gets played regularly at the band’s shows), the meandering “Red As Satan,” “Cowbell” (which beat Christopher Walken to the joke by over a decade), the nicer, cleaner and tighter reprise of “I Drink A Lot,” “The Refrigerator That Wouldn’t Close” and the frenetic two-part bleat of “Sweetness” all illustrate that Ween was literally learning how to play, how to be a band, how to write songs and how to record them all as the tape rolled. If you listen to the album in its original sequence (and that it initially came out on cassette would have helped with this) it’s possible to chart the band’s growth through the running of Crucial Squeegie Lip from the sound of a couple of kids goofing around in the beginning to a tighter – if still very sophomoric – indie/hardcore band as they take another shot at “Boobs” and walk briskly (rather than run) through “Yolk,” “Everyone’s A Lesbian” and “Oik.” In and of itself, that’s a pretty impressive progression to make in just forty-seven minutes and, while still very shambolic does, in some unusual and intangible way, does give a sketch at where the band might be headed after all.

Axis: Bold As Boognish
(Bird O’ Prey, 1987)
It didn’t take long for the ball to start rolling for Ween at all. With the pressure and imposing feat that making making their first record represents for any young band off and a bit more of an emboldened stature from which to work as a result, Ween trims down the filler from their forty-track behemoth debut (and jettisons a fair number of the hardcore yelps and snarls in the process), gets brave enough to try some different sounds and starts reaching into more conventional, pop song, verse-chorus-verse structures. The easiest comparison to make between Axis and its predecessor is that there is no comparison to make; while presumably the conditions under which Axis was made were similar to those that yielded Crucial Squeegie Lip, the overall sound of Axis is far cleaner and the songs translate far better for it.

While “I’m Killing It (Kill Everything)” continues the thread that CSL first unrolled and “Tweet Tweet” makes the most of the band’s facility to knock out entertaining and provocative fluff, the change that manifests in “On The Beach” is instant and remarkable. Leaving the distortion pedals un-stomped, Gene and Dean will their way into a Pet Sounds-esque sort of sublime and methodical songwriting that boils under in a most compelling surge.

That moment will incite the first epiphany of Ween’s career in listeners: around the time of Axis’ release, the duo were occasional tour mates with similarly bent Tex-Mex headcases the Butthole Surfers (the similarities between the bands in their early careers kills the notion that location was a stimulus considering that Ween’s from Pennsylvania) and there was more than a passing comparison that could be made between the two bands’ music. The screaming, the hardcore sludge were the ties that bound the bands back then, but as soon as Ween break the pop barrier with “On The Beach,” the distinction is made and Ween stands alone as individual an entity as Dustin Diamond, Verne Troyer or the aardvark. As one listens to the album as well, after “On The Beach” washes through and removes all doubts, listeners find themselves examining and ingesting the band in a far different way; suddenly, stark and electrifying moments in songs like “I Like You,” “Emily” and the still-very-odd “David The Negro” poke through the showers of tape hiss. Freeman also begins to better develop his elastic vocal range (check out “The Iron Whore” as well as the R&B-inflected “Sittin’ On My Ass” and the “Aqua Lung” rip “Aqua-Ween” or the cover of The Beatles’ She Said She Said”). Of course, while all of those examples illustrate just how creative and adventurous Ween was getting in their genre-defying reach but it wouldn’t fly if Freeman and Melchiondo were just fumbling in the dark. Axis is an excellent portrait of a band growing exponentially in competence, confidence and ability with each successive release – the sound quality is weak, but this album shows Ween to have untapped ability –  all they need is a budget to help realize it.

Erica Peterson’s Flaming Crib Death
(Bird O’ Prey, 1987)
In order to explain why Ween went back and re-examined some of the material from their first record for a new release after producing only two tapes-worth of content, one has to understand the customs and practices prevalent in the underground music scene of the 1980s. Because being in an indie band at the time ostensibly also meant agreeing tto a status of abject poverty, releases were often made very cheaply (cassettes were common because they were durable and cost-effective)under the reasoning that, in a show of support for any given band in a live setting, concertgoers could drop a couple of bucks and get something concrete to commemorate that they “were there” when band X came through town. That notion might seem a little silly, but bands get by on the same kind of impulse buying to this day.

Presumably for that reason, after Ween blew a few minds with Axis: Bold As Boognish and established that the band was more than just a hardcore, two-chord cacophony, they didn’t waste any time in trying to renovate their image. The band realized that Crucial Squeegie Lip was no longer representative of their vision but, rather than discard the material completely (waste not, want not and all) they elected to go back and re-examine the songs with the added benefit of experience.

Immediately noticeable as “Go” kicks open Erica Peterson’s Flaming Crib Death is the clarity, confidence and focus of it when compared with Crucial Squeegie Lip; while the scruffy edges are still present in tracks like “I Drink A Lot,” “Yolk,” “Stress Tabs” and “We Seen Ween Bean,” there is a greater attention paid to the presentation of the songs (there’s lingering feedback in the songs but, unlike the case with CSL, it doesn’t fudge the proceedings) so they move along better rather thhan just just splattering forth and letting listeners sort them out on their own time.

That isn’t to say that Crib Death is a complete about-face into the climes of competent professionalism exactly, it’s more like a muscular reinforcement of when the band was leaning from the beginning with a better idea of how to get there; with cleaner production, a more pronounced inkling of Ween’s sarcastic and cartoonish sense of humour begins to surface and, while the band isn’t quite ready to turn it off the leash just yet (they’re getting better, but aren’t yet great at making it sound good yet either), but they’re edging ever closer and – between Axis and Crib Death – Ween has set up the basic parameters for the themes and approaches (if not all the sounds) they’d toy with and tweak for the duration of their career.

Live Brain Wedgie!/WAD
(Bird O’ Prey, 1988)
With all the work that Ween has done and all the praise they’ve earned since joining the major label music world, it’s hard to imagine how they started. For example, there’s no doubt that Live Brain Wedgie! Was the first pay-off for those early fans that Ween won with the touring they did and the sketchy tapes they made.

It’s difficult to believe it would qualify as a victory given that not many people have ever actually heard it though. As Minneapolis-based  Spin/Village Voice/New York Times critic Terri Sutton implied in 1994’s Spin Alternative Record Guide, “No doubt only Ween’s nearest and dearest own the band’s first official release, a sloppy, limited-edition EP called Live Brain Wedgie! Paid for by a friend,” Ween was nowhere near the level of mass exposure or acceptance that they’d later enjoy. The initial sales figures exemplify that too; the sole 500-copy pressing of the EP didn’t sell out at the time of its release and the band has retained a lot of the remaining copies itself – presumably to function as a retirement fund given the rabid demeanor of their core fan base and resale values that the few copies available have commanded.

Is that sort of heated demand justifiable? For those super-fans that have paid exorbitant sums for copies of the record over the the last decade or so, there’s no debating that it is and, realistically, the quality of the recording makes for a gratifying listen for those that were straining to hear the songs on the garbled cassettes that preceded it. The live versions of “You Fucked Up,” “I Drink A Lot” and “Nippy Wiffle” (the release is split between live cuts on the first side – which plays at 33 RPM – and studio recordings on the 45 RPM flipside) all benefit from the additional road work that the band did in support of their previous releases and cleaner sound that reveals Ween’s live act was more solid and rapturous than those fans that never saw them in the early years would expect. With a playback rhythm section keeping things grounded and Dean’s guitar work beginning to develop into an interesting prototype for what would later be called ‘post-punk’ in line (in this case, the guitars are a distorted cross between MC5, Saturday morning cartoon theme songs and deceptively driving leads similar to that of Prince), Gene is able to get really wild on the mic. Freeman’s voice takes on an all-new and manic disposition in this context as, with all eyes on him, he pushes his vocal range from deranged to irate in “You Fucked Up” to the sort of tight, enunciated and clipped phrasing typical of children’s records (on “I Like You”) and betrays a progression in vocal chops that, when stacked against the band’s previous releases, proves to be pretty revelatory; the guitarist and singer are still very much steeped in punk and hardcore orthodoxy (a fact that feels like a matter of insecurity more with each release), but the distance they’re putting between themselves and those beginnings is growing.

That growth is nowhere near so evident in the studio cuts that populate the flipside of Live Brain Wedgie!/WAD. Often caterwauling like a bargain basement GWAR, the feedback-drenched mix and vocal panting of “In The Node Of Golgotha,” glue-huffing blues of “Stacey” and classic rock joke “Gladiola Heartbreaker” (which does bear a passing resemblance to Zep’s “Heartbreaker”) are just too much of a “just okay” thing. The truth is that Ween just isn’t ready yet – the growth observes in Axis and Flaming Crib Death seems to have plateaued and the dominating impression left by Live Brain Wedgie!/WAD is that Ween is very much in need of a shot in the arm.

That doesn’t mean that fans don’t salivate at the possibility of laying their hands on a copy of it though; it is without question the hot commodity in Ween’s catalogue for those most devout uber-supporters. It is true that the songs benefit from the quality of the recording significantly (the demo versions of “I Gots A Weasel” and “Hippy Smell” and all of the live tracks stand as fantastic if not essential) and there is value in that, but the price tag attached with give just about anyone pause (copies sell on the web for $150 minimum). For the curious though, listeners can track down the audio from the EP (as well as that of the Bird O’ Prey tapes) on Ween’s own torrent download site, browntracker.net. It sounds cynical, but that’s the better way to hear Live Brain Wedgie! over pining for an ebay auction for some of this ultra-rare vinyl.

Prime 5
(???, 1989)
Ironically, while Live Brain Wedgie/WAD is the most sought after independent Ween release, the one that boasts the emptiest fact sheet is Prime 5. Copies of the release are, at this point, really nothing more than a folk legend (no cover or liner notes have been uncovered and the label that released it is unknown) and the only concrete evidence that it even existed is the fact that the track list and some of the audio are available through browntracker.net. One could assume that the band would know the details of the release, but if they do they’re not spilling the beans. Because conjecture (other than a portion of the audio) is all there is to go on in this case, the lack of information and availability of audio from Prime 5 might be Ween’s attempt at a gimmick;with the image of a god-legend still integral to the face of the band when the tape came out in 1989, the idea of a virtually unknown and unfindable (hence legendary in itself) best-of compilation might have been very attractive to the band and so, with a very limited production run, they cultivated the idea ‘legendary’ chronicle of a god-legend-serving outfit.

The audio that is available from Prime Five is the real story and thing to find though. While it’s true that the album only pulls together some of the choice cuts from Ween’s independent releases (Crucial Squeegie Lip, Axis: Bold As Boognish, Erica Peterson’s Flaming Crib Death and Live Brain Wedgie!/WAD – Prime 5 was obviously the fifth release, hence the numeric name which also happens to represent the lowest prime number in mathematics), what’s noticeable first is that the sound quality of these versions of the songs far suthat of the other browntracker-issued copies of the early tapes and so is far more representative of them. The cleaner sound makes the tracks more audible and, in so doing, draws a direct line illustrating the fact that, at the dawn of the Nineties, Ween didn’t simply appear from nowhere; the band has a train of thought that they were following – all they really needed was some help to better realize (and clarify) their ambition.

GodWeenSatan – The Oneness
(Twin Tone, 1990; Restless, 2001)
…And, immediately upon signing to Twin Tone, that help they needed was exactly what they got. Ween’s first release on an established label must have felt like vindication for those faithful few that hung in there with Ween. Those that saw the promise in Dean and Gene’s weird and low-fi noodling must have gotten a little tingle when the underdogs had their first big day and the now far tighter songs on GodWeenSatan had the added benefit of introducing a far larger crop of disaffected oddballs to a sound they could undoubtedly call their own.

And GodWeenSatan is certainly a proper introduction. Screaming, chattering, squealing and wriggling itself to life, the album instantly sets the cartoon-core vibe that the band had been digging into as early as Live Brain Wedgie! (with “You Fucked Up” – again) but, this time out, the band makes the best possible use of the increased quality that increased production dollars afford by opening up their palette to include more adventurous sounds that they bravely don’t bury in a blur here. Songs including “Never Squeal,” “Don’t Laugh (I Love You),” “I Gots A Weasel,” “Up On The Hill” and “Marble Tulip Juicy Tree” try on a wild variety of sounds including dirty blues, quasi-soul, almost-scat-jazz and wilfully pallid Top 40 pop – all with a comedic and rubber-faced smirk that flat out ignores the notion of an authoritative voice. Ween makes no bones about and actually revels in the fact that the songs and ideas in them are a gloriously fraudulent experiment and so doesn’t bother trying to hide it with artifice or over-compensate by trying to to inject any sort of genuine sentimentality. That approach would, of course, draw flak from any number of indie rock granola heads who would cry foul at the first hint of impropriety (which appears less than ten seconds into the album by the way), but it’s difficult to justifiably kvetch about these twenty-six (very, very short) songs because they’re so well presented. While Dean would later say in interviews that neither he nor Gene really knew how to play when they started the band (“I pretty much just tuned to an open chord and that was good enough to start in Ween.”), the leap in musicianship that GodWeenSatan represents is fairly staggering; where their previous releases were (comparatively) pretty standard and rooted in pop structures, on The Oneness Ween spontaneously branches into sounds that could easily be mistaken for fine classic rock (“Nicole” bears serious reggae flavor, “Cold And Wet” would be a staple rock anthem in another band’s songbook, “Old Queen Cole” sounds like a duet between Motorhead and Elvis Costello and “L.M.L.Y.P” does possess elements of “Shockadelica” by Prince) but there is always something just a hair off in each case that makes the songs hypnotic to audiophiles and rock historians that need to know the background elements of everything they hear and addictive to those that just dig a good pop hook. While it seems strange to attribute such a status to such an obviously cult-saturated album, GodWeenSatan – The Oneness really does have something for everyone.

Eleven years and seven albums after the initial shock, Melchiondo and Freeman went back to The Oneness and reissued a re-mastered, slightly longer (three extra tracks) “25th Anniversary Edition” of the album for old fans to lap up and new ones to get hooked on [the irony is that the reissue hit on an infamous day in and of itself: the reissue was scheduled to arrive on store shelves on September 11, 2001 -ed]. While the differences are fairly negligible (the extra songs neither add to nor do they subtract from the proceedings), the updated production once again proves to be a benefit to the songs because the mixes open up and actually let listeners poke around inside to discover new treasures (check out “Marble Tulip Juicy Tree” – on the reissue, it never seems to play the same way twice) and never ceases to suprise even long-time fans as new sounds seem to manifest from nowhere.

With all of that said, the conundrum for qualifying the album remains; on one hand, saying that GodWeenSatan – The Oneness should be essential listening for anyone with even a passing interest in what Ween might have to offer seems redundant but it doesn’t seem entirely correct on the other. The Oneness is certainly a fun and funny listen that fans will treasure, but this is only the beginning of Ween’s curve – the seeds have been planted, but the crop is not yet full-grown here.

The Pod
(Shimmy Disc, 1991, Elektra, 1995)
As otherworldly and unrepentantly different as Ween might be and no matter how much they may have drawn that difference out with GodWeenSatan, the band members were still human at their core. Unfortunately, that humanity meant risking the same perils as other musical groups and, truly, no group in memory was hit so hard by that vaunted sophomore slump as Ween was when The Pod came out. It may have been simple unreadiness that knee-capped the band (Ween re-entered the studio less than a year after releasing GodWeenSatan to begin work on a follow-up), but the results are so questionable that a lesser (and shorter) of two reviews would be to talk about what goes right on this album; even with over a decade of distance from the original release now, it’s impossible not to feel as if The Pod isn’t a step backward for the band.

Recorded to four-track tape (and it shows in every microtone), The Pod wrestles furiously with the technical limitations that Ween once revelled in and the resulting mess just feels scattered. From the opening slur of “Strap On That Jammy Pac,” there’s no arguing that GodWeenSatan was the developmental shot in the arm that Ween needed – Gene’s voice sounds even more nimble and pliable than it has been previously on songs like “Dr. Rock,” “Frank,” “Captain Fantasy,” “Mononucleosis” and “Pork Roll Egg And Cheese” which run the gamut from funk and soul to great big (Kiss-sized even) arena rock to country (“Sorry Charlie”) and Seventies space rock/prog (“Right To The Ways And The Rules Of The World”) and more but, while there’s no faulting Ween’s ambition here, a bad case of low-fi sound and lousy production values detract exponentially from the proceedings and lose listeners with the two-dimensional delivery here. To be fair, there are decent moments (“Captain Fantasy” is particularly stirling, but there’s a better version of “Pork Roll Egg And Cheese” on Live In Chicago) to be found here and there are elements laid out on The Pod that would go on to sound absolutely incredible later (“Buckingham Green” on The Mollusk lifts the chord progression as well as melodic elements from “Rights To The Ways And The Rules Of The World”), it would be difficult to make a case against the possibility that Ween was trying for something beyond their reach with the resources they had at their disposal for The Pod.

Pure Guava
(Elektra, 1992)
While the span of time between The Pod and Pure Guava wasn’t really so different from the span between GodWeenSatan and The Pod, the easiest comparison to make for the disparity in quality between The Pod and Pure Guava is that there isn’t one; as night is to the morning an atomic bomb went off, so is the difference between The Pod and Pure Guava. Right from the get-go, the difference in quality (of sound, if not in songwriting too) is apparent in “Little Birdy” which, while still sounding monumentally stoned, comes off as crisper, cleaner and with all the parts clearly defined. The song successfully combines the delerium hinted at on The Pod, but presents it with cleaner, tidier instrumental performances, far superior mixing and a more definable hook that drags listeners (those willing and unwilling) along and coaxes knowing smirks out of them all – even the cynical.

After a little bizarre and hoarse noodling (“Tender Situation”) and a cross-phased continuation of “The Stallion” (a sort-of half-holdover from The Pod which gives an effective measure of the improvement made between albums), Pure Guava falls into its groove with “Big Jilm” and instantly draws still another line in the sand between it and everything that preceded it; suddenly sounding like a full band (Pure Guava marks the first appearance of Mean Ween – Ween’s some-time, on-and-off bass player, although he only contributes backing vocals here on “Little Birdy”), Dean and Gene take the opportunity to do a little muscle-flexing and ape some hyper-masculine characters (the band’s beloved Prince gets toyed with on “Don’t Get 2 Close 2 My Fantasy” while the duo also tries out some rap and hip hop roughness in “The Goin’ Gets Tough From The Getgo” and does their own inimitable take on the “Take This Job And Shove It” gripe with “Pumpin’ For The Man”) but also offers some commentary on the absurdism of such posturing by crossing it with vocal takes that are either cartoon-y or effeminate  whic derails both possible sides the approach could take; making it obviously sarcastic as a result. For other bands, such commentaries might work for a song or two before just getting boring but Ween gets away with doing entire albums this way by offering that ‘take-the-piss-out-of-everything,’ petulant sarcasm alongside brilliant and able genre performances; songs like “Push Th’ Little Daisies,” “Reggaejunkiejew,” “Touch My Tooter” and “Poop Ship Destroyer” all sound like fine Eighties island pop, first wave rap, good times R&B and something that would have fit right in on a late-career Frank Zappa record until you notice that the lyrical content doesn’t exactly mesh with the music (unless peanut-butter-and-cucumber combinations are your thing) and thus turns all of it on its head. Those that catch Ween’s pop cultural terrorism will laugh – as the band does itself – at their audacity, but those that don’t will certainly be very vocal in their disgust. That’s the single greatest part of the joke on Pure Guava though – and they’d only refine it further and get better at playing it in the following years and albums to come.

Chocolate And Cheese
(Elektra, 1994)
Aristotle may have called wit educated insolence, Winston Churchill might have intimated that a joke was a very serious thing – George Orwell may have explained that a dirty joke is a pervasive form of mental rebellion – but it two guys that met in a typing class to play out the definitive link between all of those schools of thought and more AND illustrate that none of it would account for the heights to which Ween began scaling with Chocolate And Cheese. Spin contributor Ann Tyson called Chocolate And Cheese “the Weenest of Ween albums” the year it was released and, to that point in the band’s career, it really is true; in these sixteen short, stylistically divergent songs, Ween successfully presents a portrait of themselves and their world that remains a defining moment for the group as well as one by which all future releases would be judged.

The band’s shot for a new and “authoritative” (as only Ween can define the term) presence is clearly apparent from the opening subversive charge of “Take Me Away,” a track that remains one of the most anthemic compositions to be performed with a cheap drum machine in popular song. From note one, Ween sets the unflinching tone for the record as they shoot for arena-sized ambitions but, with an attractive twist all their own, they micro-size it in such a way that makes the puniest sounds ever produced force listeners to punch the air and beg for more (they’d prove it years later on Live In Chicago). The inclusion of a full band (at least some of the time, what would be regarded as classic Ween collaborators including Claude “yes he’s just that good” Coleman, Andrew Weiss and Chriss “Mean Ween” Williams all contribute here) proves to be the greatest boon here as, with the added personnel, songs like “Take Me Away,” “Spinal Meningitis,” “Roses Are Free,” “Baby Bitch” and “Voodoo Lady” all rock with a force and presence that, as good as the band might have been getting, no one could have guessed the band was capable of. In each of those aforementioned songs, Geen and Dean attach their now well-honed subversive bent to big-huge rock band sensibilities to make them sound both universal and attractively perverse, but also make that sense function in tandem with their strongest hooks. The effect, in this case, is like a candy coating on the perverted medicine which allows all those hooks to slip-slide smoothly down the collective throat of listeners. Each of the bigger-songs – whether it’s the eerie psychodrama of “Spinal Meningitis,” the Santana/Hendrix jam “Voodoo Lady,” or “Roses Are Free” (which sounds like it could have easily been done by Fleetwood Mac in another universe) – plays through a sort of “we’re dead serious dammit!” chortle that Ween uses handily and with confidence that will jar those attempting to follow along because there are no missteps or ill-advised delusions of grandeur; every ounce of grandeur presented here just plain works.

Those aforementioned songs are a monument to the powers that Ween was beginning to wield in every performance setting the band would place itself in (live, in the studio) but the real surprises come on Chocolate And Cheese from the less visible tracks. When they scale back the bombast and play more to their earlier conventions (obviously synthetic drums, stiffer performances and more spare arrangements) is where it’s easier to better document Ween’s growth. Songs like “I Can’t Put My Finger On It,” “The H.I.V. Song” and “Don’t Shit Where You Eat” could easily fit in with the sonic palette presented on GodWeenSatan but, while Aaron “Gene Ween” Freeman’s vocal faculties hadn’t been in question anymore for years by this point, by Chocolate And Cheese, he was getting confident and comfortable enough to throw a little weight around. On Chocolate And Cheese, Freeman’s vocal styling runs the gamut from Phillie International-inspired soul (“Freedom Of ’76”) to swishy, testosterone-free pop (“Roses Are Free”) and even a little cock rock-ish crotch-grabbing (“I Can’t Put My Finger On It”). Every step of the way, the singer’s pipes never fail or give listeners the impression that those tracks where the vocal timbres shift might be Freeman’s first vocal performance of the sound but, taken as a whole, the versatility and talent that the singer expresses is nothing short of incredible.

That same expanded sonic palette and performance is true for guitarist Mickey “Dean Ween” Melchiondo. As fans already knew, Melchiondo must have totally absorbed the rock n’ roll songbook in its entirety to stylistically shift with such ease, but the guitarist really shows listeners what he’s made of for the first time on Chocolate And Cheese. Between “Voodoo Lady” (which the guitarist would go on to push even further live), “Spinal Meningitis” and “Drifter In The Dark” alone, Melchiondo morphs from classic rock God styling to post-punk menace and country cowpoke effortlessly and makes a believer out of anyone that might have (falsely) thought that Ween song structures might have been limited to mishandled punk. Here, Melchiondo removes all doubt that all things are possible.

All of that said, and the leap forward in chops and styling that Ween presents on Chocolate And Cheese is still staggering. By this opint, it’s apparent that Ween is beginning to get a lot more direction and a better idea of where they want to go with the self-assured knowledge that they can actually pull it off. Because of that, new fans would be well-advised to start here, get a feel for the band and branch out afterward; it’s the ideal litmus test for the uninitiated to make their introduction with Ween.

12 Golden Country Greats
(Elektra, 1996)
It’s funny but, when one boils it right down, in the existence of 12 Golden Country Greats rests the single largest concession that Ween ever made to standardized operating procedures among the musical community (though not necessarily in the eyes of the music business’ governing bodies). Melchiondo and Freeman may have thought the idea was funny and the design of the album may have seemed a little obtuse (Ween does an all-country album? Roll the idea around in your mind for a minute and see if it doesn’t recoil) but, in the strictest of terms, the intent and execution of it fits the alt-nation’s anti-commercial stance to a tee. The methodology could be viewed like this:

In the Nineties, it was common for bands surprised and confused by the sudden wave of acceptance they were experiencing to recoil and make a “totally different sort of album that will scare fair-weather fans away.” Such cases are exemplified by Nirvana’s In Utero and Vs. by Pearl Jam among a number of others. In doing so, the reasoning was that the band in question would get back to a level on which they were more comfortable AND be left with the personal and creative freedom to do whatever they chose.

Such reasoning was commonplace and accepted (if not wholly understood) at the time but, it’s not likely that it was the angle Ween was aiming for. First, historically speaking, such anti-corporate sentiments aren’t in keeping with Ween’s perceived value set; like the Butthole Surfers, Ween has always seemed intent upon touching and twisting as many minds are within their reach and it’s totally reasonable to believe that the band figured a country record would seem pretty outrageous coming from them. Een more outrageous would be to get a bunch of seasoned C&W veterans to accompany them (for those that don’t know, 12 Golden Country Greats – the title – refers to the Nashville session players Ween hired to play with them on the record – not an obviously incorrect reference to the number of songs) and so get some historical presence in songs with titles like “Piss Up A Rope” and “Mister Richard Smoker.”

That sort of thinking seems totally plausible to believe in Ween.

There’s little doubt that the bemused looks flew regularly around the recording studio during the sessions too, because Ween really pulls out all of the lyrical stops to instill fury in both rock purists and country oldsters. In this context, the lyric sheets for songs like “Piss Up A Rope” and “Help Me Scrape The Mucus Off My Brain” seem totally vulgar – in a Kinky Friedman sort of way – and would be very jarring were it not for the fact that Aaron Freeman sings them straight to the heart of vintage country & western orthodoxy with Melchiondo largely following suit on guitar (exception being on “You Were The Fool” where the clouds of psychedelic rock begin to shade the skies as the song comes to a close). In fact, more than on any of Ween’s other records, 12 Golden Country Greats simultaneously plays both straighter and more crooked than any other record in the band’s catalogue; depending upon which side of the songs you listen to (lyrics or music), the album can either amount to the most terrifying offering imaginable or the sweetest listen on Earth. It takes a second, but the contrasts between the two only make themselves apparent AFTER one gets past the solid melodies in songs like “You Were The Fool,” “Powder Blue,” “Pretty Girl” and “Japanese Cowboy” (where was that song on the soundtrack to Shanghai Noon incidentally?) and realizes that there JUST MIGHT BE something a little off in the proceedings. It’s a great dichotomy that Ween balances perfectly.

It sounds like heresy to say it (or write it) but, because it is so incredibly well-orchestrated (some would say faked), it becomes easy to see how 12 Golden Country Greats might be the dark horse winner in the contest for ‘Most Influential Album’ in Ween’s catalogue. Think about it – in the alt-rock community in the Nineties, there was nothing less cool than country music but conspicuously, after the album’s release alt-country and No Depression bands like Wilco, Son Volt, Skydiggers and others suddenly began getting noticed on a far larger scale than they had previously. Is it possible that Ween is responsible for making it safe for Johnny Cash to step on stage and cover Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” for an audience of country purists? Maybe – the conjecture could rage forever – butone thing is for sure: it Ween’s brown-colored sound references the band’s ability to cross generic lines with impunity and still make a remarkable sound that even not-fans can appreciate, 12 Golden Country Greats is unquestionably the brownest record in Ween’s catalogue.

The Mollusk
(Elektra, 1997)
After Ween’s convincing country & western turnjust one year prior, all bets were rendered off regarding what fans could expect next from the band. They’d illustrated on 12 Golden Country Greats that they were capable of co-opting and masterfully pirating their way through most anything they chose, so that quickly increasing number of eyes and ears focussed on the band were waiting expectantly for something truly special and impressive to come next.

In spite of sporting a rather unflattering and maudlin name like The Mollusk, they weren’t disappointed.  The difference in style and approach (again) manifests itself in the tight arrangements and even tighter song structures that The Mollusk throws into each of each of its fourteen tracks.

In some ways, (to be fair) The Mollusk does represent a return to the deliberately manic disposition of Chocolate And Cheese but, even more than on that album, the songs are more focused with greater attention paid to a thematic consistency as well as boasting ever-more accomplished instrumental performances.

By the time Ween released The Mollusk, the band has long since crossed that magic line where punks become musicians of course, but even that doesn’t explain this album. After some pseudo-cutesy (is anything ever perfectly straightforward on a Wen album? Let’s hope it never reaches that point), kiddie imitation in “Dancing In The Show Tonight” that gets a whole lot less ironic when you realize kids actually dig it (I checked), a sort of concept album about all things seaside begins to gel as Ween runs some chanteys (“The Blarney Stone,” “Buckingham Green”), island pop (“Ocean Man”), wistful and watery folk (the title track) and more watery effects and trappings than you can shake a stick at through the blender and comes up with a chum bucket full of some cartoonish and silly but plainly arresting aquatic anthems that are incomparable in the band’s songbook.

That isn’t to say that, after the pristine palomino enactments of 12 Golden Country Greats, Ween suddenly and spontaneously decided to start taking themselves seriously, just that while once there was no question whether or not Ween was goofing off, now the band is capable of presenting themselves with a comic edge on fine rock tunes that could stand against those of any band that takes itself too seriously and win. Songs like “Mutilated Lips,” “Buckingham Green” and “Ocean Man” all remove any doubt that, if Ween fucks around and gets a few laughs now, it’s because they want to instead of needing to; they have the chops, the platform and the talent so anything they do from here on out is a product of meticulous design – not necessity. If Chocolate And Cheese is regarded as the “Weenest of Ween albums,” The Mollusk is a classic album on any and all terms.

Paintin’ The Town Brown – Ween Live ’90 – ’98 (2CD)
 (Elektra, 1999)
By the time the live compilation Paintin’ The Town Brown came along in 1999 (more on the circumstances behind the release later), Ween had done the work, paid the dues and built a pretty substantial live following but, to that point, a live album wasn’t readily available (the last one was Live Brain Wedgie!) to assuage fans that weren’t able to secure tickets or promote them as the thoroughly bizarre but wildly captivating and entertaining live act they were.  Paintin’ The Town Brown seeks to both remedy that hole in Ween’s output as well as function as a sort of retrospective to illustrate the band’s growth from lean, two-men-and-a-tape-recorder performances to full-band mayhem as well as including some oddities that the band looked into along the way like the tour with The Shit Creek Boys (the band that backed Ween for the 12 Golden Country Greats tour) and other thoroughly cool weirdness.

The set really does aim to be as comprehensive as possible as it ventures back all the way to Ween’s first tour of Holland in 1991 through the aforementioned performances with Shit Creek Boys and the great, big, spectacular and prog-propelled permutation of the band circa 1997. Paintin’ The Town Brown presents a dramatic progression (a little ironic too, given that the first of two discs opens with a deranged take on “Mushroom Festival In Hell” and includes an East Indian, curry-flavoured impression of “I Can’t Put My Finger On It”) and really does cover some impressive ground in spite of ignoring most of the big “hits” already in the band’s songbook (no tracks from The Mollusk appear and the only single presented is “Voodoo Lady” – which does get an impressive showing from a performance in 1997) and focusses more on the extremes that Ween is capable of in performance rather than a readymade and easy-to-swallow effort.

…And the second disc of Paintin’ The Town Brown is about as extreme as Ween can get. Featuring just three tracks, disc two takes listeners to the furthest fringes of Ween’s scope as a jam band capable of riding its own twisted anomalous muses into remarkable, unusual and remarkably unusual spaces. Clocking in at twenty-five minutes in duration, “Poop Ship Destroyer” (which was originally a teensy, two-minute trifle tacked onto the tail end of Pure Guava) is inflated to terrifying and megalithic proportions here as the nautical nonsense of the song collides with some kaleidoscopic space rock, the effect of which launches the heavy-handed barge straight to the depths of the unknown, brimming with hyperbolic hyperbole. It’s just one of those things you have to hear to believe.

Even more unusual and elongated is the thirty-minute version of “Vallejo” (previously only available on the Voodoo Lady EP); it sort of starts out like a surf-punk-by-way-of-Sweden work-out that, while it never really goes anywhere (both it and the version of “Poop Ship Destroyer” bear all the marks of an ‘end of the set’ meltdown), does offer a glimpse into just how much textural brown paint Ween has in reserve on any given night and it is interesting to take a look, if only once, and see just how deep the black hole can go.

At that, it goes without saying that  Paintin’ The Town Brown has a place in Ween’s catalogue and it is interesting but it’s also apparent that the set is a dry first run at a live album for the band; it brings the uninitiated up to date on the story so far but also leaves a lot to be desired – even if the band’s label at the time thought it might be a pot of gold (Elektra took the project away from Ween – who wanted it to be their first online release – and put it out themselves). Paintin’ The Town Brown opened the rift that would only get larger and ultimately destroy relations between Elektra and Ween and, while they would remain with the label for another studio album, Paintin’ The Town Brown is where communication began to break down.

Craters Of The Sac
(MP3 release only, 1999)
According to the surprisingly in-depth synopsis of Craters Of The Sac’s existence on Wikipedia, “Craters Of The Sac is a semi-official, mp3-only album by Ween. Because Elektra records released Paintin’ The Town Brown, which was to be Ween’s first oline, independent release, Dean Ween leaked the “album” to the internet in 1999 to succor their fans and show them how much Ween appreciated them. Consisting entirely of almost colossally bizarre studio cuts that may never have even been intended for album release, it’s less an actual album and almost more along the lines of a bootleg compilation. […] However, it has been rumored by the band that one day fans may see the appearance of Craters II: Back To The Sac.”

…All of which sounds fantastic and marvellous in theory, but it may be a case of history being re-written with a slightly more positive spin. It’s possible and even likely that Elektra’s impropriety and mishandling of Paintin’ The Town Brown caused some hard feelings with the band but, in listening to Craters Of The Sac, it’s difficult to believe that these nine songs were even possibly contenders for inclusion on a proper Ween album. At best, these songs might have ended up becoming extras on a major label EP release but, even then, the likelihood is pretty far removed.

The shades of early (think Erica Peterson’s Flaming Crib Death) and embryonic Ween efforts permeate Craters Of The Sac which ensures that even the faithful would regard it as a step backward for the band but it is of interest from a historical standpoint because it did get the ball rolling for a series of über-fan independent Ween releases. It also foreshadowed the foundation of Ween’s cottage label Chocodog which would later prove to be on invaluable use to the band and a joy to fans.

Even so,  Craters Of The Sac really isn’t that good. The downside for Ween to the advances made in recording technology has been that even demos and aborted ideas can get more attention than they deserve and the lion’s share of Craters fairly smacks of that notion. While “Monique The Freak” gets back to Ween’s professed love affairs with both Frank Zappa and Prince and “The Stallion” gets still another instalment of attention here (part five, in this case) that’s a little less tedious than its predecessors, a bad case of pitifully fuzzy and muted production detracts significantly from the modest impact these songs might have borne even if they were perfectly detailed. Worse, most of the songs here SOUND unfinished as lyric sheets rely on repetition and cheap (in a bad way) effects to mask or obscure their weakness (“Big Fat Fuck” anyone?). Such complaints have been registered against Ween before, but not since The Pod or earlier had it been so apparent that no amount of kid gloves could hide a Ween dud, and it’s just unfortunate that so many happened to land in one place.

On the other hand, the track leakage story could hold water as, since that event, several of these songs have been re-touched in one way or another and re-presented later on Chocodog releases like Live On Request and Shinola; “Monique The Freak,” “The Stallion pt. 5,” “How High Can You Fly?” and “Big Fat Fuck” would all appear in cleaner, re-touched and re-mastered forms of Chocodog fare. Because of that, the purpose of putting out Craters Of The Sac may indeed have been to beat everyone else to the punch but the downfall of the idea lies in the poor quality of the songs; none could be mistaken for their advance release being a stroke of genius or any sort of coup.

White Pepper
(Elektra, 2000)
While the rift between Ween and their label may have been continuing to grow even as it came out, that White Pepper’s quality is as high as it is speaks volumes to the band’s senses of ethics and dedication to their fans – even while they were running their contract out. In fact, White Pepper is still another of Ween’s long-established series of evolutions that finds them reaching further and perfecting their take on alien (to them) sounds to surprise and elate fans and also to leave the uninitiated gob-smacked that such a weird band could rock so hard and so easily weasel in and win fans, even in the strangest of arenas. This time, a greater world music (not so much otherworldly) influence creeps into songs like “Flutes Of Chi” and “Bananas And Blow” as more exotic instrumentation filters in for Ween’s customary twisting. In this case, surprisingly able flamenco guitar styling invades the island jam “Bananas And Blow” while The Beatles (at their most acid-saturated) accidently wander on stage with Peter Frampton in “Back To Basom” and, for reasons no one can fathom, Ween walks through a Japanese tea room carrying a tiki torch in “Flute Of Chi.” Of course, as is de rigeur in the Ween-iverse, all of these opposed images should work together begrudgingly but, more than they have previously, they actually attract here as opposed to the comical results the band has generated before. In that way, White Pepper is something of a world music summit as ideas get exchanged here and new combinations produce new, interesting sounds.

Because the dense styles attempted here require significant effort to expound, White Pepper is very much keyboardist Glenn McClelland and Mickey Melchiondo’s showcase, bu the bluprint drawn out here begs curiosity; in songs like “Even If You Don’t,” “The Grobe” and “Ice Castles,” McClelland clears absolutely enormous landscapes upon which Melchiondo and fellow principle players Claude Coleman and Dave Dreiwitz erect their strange but sound and dense sound structures. The results are some of the most adventurous of Ween’s career; in “Pandy Fackler,” for example, a hybrid of country and ragtime comes together effortlessly and is delicately turned inside out with images of hookers dancing the bossa nova tirelessly while strippers entertain the crowd all night. Elsewhere, Melchiondo, Freeman and McClelland vacuum-seal an epic composition into the tiniest space imaginable with “The Grobe” and talks a beloved down from a ledge in “Even If You Don’t” before taking her out to a biker party on “Stroker Ace.” In each case, the songs wear their derangements in plain view but, perhaps because they’ve done it so often, the band’s only-half-straight-faced attack ends up functioning as the hook that drags listeners happily along and reassures them that, as strange as everything might look, like Porky in Wackyland there is no concrete concern.

As the record progresses, Ween steps out to revisit the plains of 12 Golden Country Greats through “Stay Forever,” “Falling Out” and “She’s Your Baby” which, while it certainly shouldn’t, adds still another voice to the summit (with an authority that implies Ween could have made 12 Golden Country Greats without any Nashville assistance after all – it was simply of the band’s indulgence) that carries equal weight and is equally welcome in the festivities – even if it only plays as the denouement. In the end, what listeners realize is that Ween has just run through every generic form they’ve toyed with to this point on White Pepper, thrown in a little more for good measure and presented the amalgam seamlessly and without a single sore thumb sticking out. When listeners come to that revelation, they end up getting floored because at no point does Ween stop to point out how clever they are, they just present it and let listeners come into the discovery of what’s at work here on their own.

(Sanctuary Records Group, 2003)
Following an extended break, Ween reappeared in 2003 supported by a new record label (Sanctuary Records, who got the band around the same time they were releasing material from everyone including Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Neil Young) and a refreshed energy reserve. In order to put all of the changes and new confidence placed in them to the best possible use, Ween did the one thing no fan could have expected (although that doesn’t mean there wasn’t hope): they revisited the songwriting style of Chocolate And Cheese BUT the band also piled as much muscle, anthemia, crunch and power into the recording session for a new record as they could find within themselves. No one could possibly have imagined they had it in them but, with a rogue label in their corner, a little bit of time and a whole lot of belief, Ween arrived.

The results of all the hard work and time yielded the single most arena-ready album in Ween’s catalogue, Quebec, and the album asserts itself right from the Melchiondo-sung, Mötorhead-inspired tantrum “It’s Gonna Be A Long Night.” With grinding guitars, a driving percussive assault and absolutely no looking back, the band serves notice that, even thirteen years on, they’re still punks at heart and, if anything, they’ve actually gotten better at playing every turgid note and change in the form. For the first time, Claude Coleman illustrates that he knows how to drive as well as dance on his drum kit and everyone chips in to cram the single greatest punk song Ween has ever written down the collective throat of everyone within earshot – it’s just beautiful.

But then, just as listeners are strapping themselves in for that ‘long night,’ Ween shifts gears with the no-less-sinister-intoned, but certainly more subdued and ambiance-centred “Zoloft” – a hilarious take on drug-rock as sung by a character that might be a couple of years too old to glorify the joys of illicit drug use. In that shift, Ween says without saying so that they’re not going to make it so easy to fall in step with Quebec and just let listeners shift their minds into neutral. It would be easy enough for the band – and certainly a tempting option – to simply rest on laurels and get comfortable in their new digs, but that’s not the plan for Quebec; rather, in this fifteen-song enactment, Ween plays every arena and every form of music one would expect to hear at such an establishment as hard as they can – as they interpret it.

After the raucous introductions are made and the turn and purpose of the album become clear through “It’s Gonna Be A Long Night” and “Zoloft,”the band unloads the most anthemic and bombastic song they’ve ever written in the genuinely Hendrix-ian “Transdermal Celebration” and arching back toward Paul Simon-esque delicacy with “Among His Tribe” before stealing Depeche Mode’s synthesizers to pound out “In The Neighbourhood” and thoroughly expand the minds of every listener in the base. Such is the clear direction for which Ween is aiming with Quebec, but while the band has made attempts at such wild sonic deviation before with just-okay results, this album marks the first occasion when it has all clicked together and worked in a definitive way; Ween has always gone to great pains to be everything to everyone but, here, the transitions from punk to stoner rock to electro to kid’s music have managed to come out fluidly – without a couple of throwaway tracks to make the stylistic changes easier. Here it all comes across naturally and with an almost disconcerting facility.

As the record progresses, Quebec eases into a series of confident, mid-tempo ballads (“Captain,” “Chocolate Town,” “I Don’t Want It”) before literally going all to pieces in true Butthole Surfers fashion (“The Fucked Jam”), thus leaving no doubt that, as far as they’ve come in twenty years (Yeah! Really!) Ween is still pre-disposed to juxtaposing faithful reproductions of genre song-craft against wilfully bizarre and meandering “So I’ve got this idea – what if we…” exercises in idea exorcism without actually connecting with fans on an intellectual level. Quebec – like every other album in the band’s catalogue really – is simply an enactment of two characters; the difference is that, on Quebec, Ween prove that they’ve reached the point where they can model any idea they have after different sparks of brilliance in the popular music canon and pull off a flawless replication of that idea – albeit with their own agenda at the forefront – which is brilliant in its own way. Whether they believe in it of not is irrelevant; Ween proves on Quebec that they can make good music out of anything and play it any which way they choose without losing their own unique persona. They don’t so much bow to convention as twist the conventions to suit their own ends.

All Request Live
(Chocodog, 2003)
Perhaps sensing that MTV would not be banging down their doors to do an instalment in their series of celebrated-by-the-over-forty crowd specials where large artists play house band before a trucked in audience any time soon, Ween have taken matters into their own hands and done a Live On Request set via their web site. It’s a good idea really – Ween has always had a very unique bond with their fans and has gone to great lengths to do special things for them over the years (like when Dean “leaked” the songs from Craters Of The Sac to the internet in 1999), and this live-ish performance is geared to warm the hearts of fans in that same vein. Such a statement does also imply (without trying) a double-edged sword; true, it’s a live show in closer to vintage character for the band (Dean and Gene are playing, but much of the additional instrumentation sounds synthetic in spite of being credited to a band)  and Ween has always been gifted with a great live presence, but the set list basically being dictated by super-fans guarantees a show so brown it hurts.

At complete odds with the Live In Chicago set that would be released less than a year afterward, All Request Live is designed and laid out to be a hardcore fan’s wet dream. The dead giveaway that “hardcore” fans (also known as those individuals that tend to gauge their personal worth by their knowledge of archaic facts about their favourite band) picked the songs for this record is its steadfast reliance on material from what is widely regarded as Ween’s weakest album: The Pod. Granted, that album did have it’s charms (“Pork Roll Egg And Cheese,” for example, is an essential track) but, pound-for-pound, it was the work of a band that, if only for an instant, struggled to reconcile who they were in relation to the popular taste of the moment and, because of that, those songs from The Pod don’t fare much better when given the live treatment here and come off as sounding like Butthole Surfers throwaways (exception being “Demon Sweat” which sparkles) with unnecessary distortion and generally flaccid tempos. Neither Gene nor Dean could have had anything to do with the track-list suggestions (even making fun of themselves as they lumber through all five parts of “The Stallion”) given that most of these tunes seldom get dusted off for the band’s regular live shows and so is really a monument to Ween’s dedication to their fans – even if there‘s little to no danger of attracting new ones here.

While the songs are consistently lesser known (also indicative of a fan’s comp.) All Request Live does begin to pick up as the boys throw themselves into the more recent material from Quebec (“Happy Colored Marbles” and “Tried And True”) and exercise their brownish muscles on “Cover It With Gas And Set It On Fire” and “Reggaejunkiejew”; thus proving that what they do in the studio they can absolutely pull off in a live-ish setting too. How does one critique a performance like that? Realistically, the performances of the songs are pretty good if occasionally awkward (probably because the band doesn’t have a proper audience to feed off of), the standing problem with the set lies in the fact that much of the material is very obscure and the set simply isn’t the presentation it could be; it’s not bad, but in this case the fans themselves are the ones that stopped All Request Live from being a spectacular opportunity for the band.

Live In Chicago
(Sanctuary, 2004)
By the time Live In Chicago came along, diehard fans were well-acquainted with Ween as a live band even if they’d never been able to afford a concert ticket but were willing to hunt for the rarer releases issued by the band through Chocodog (after Paintin’ The Town Brown, there was Live In Toronto Canada in 2001 and a show at Stubb’s captured in 2000 and released in 2003 in addition to the fan-appreciative document Live On Request) but one listen to the shows captured on November 8th and 9th in 2003 at the Vic Theatre in Chicago makes all the others pale in comparison.

There are definitive documents and presentations of a particular moment in a musical group’s career, but few document a band so completely or capture a group from so many angles as Ween’s CD/DVD set that combines the best moments and performances from their two-night stand at the Vic.

Performing a set of what would be regarded as greatest hits were the band saddled with a status that was more ‘pop’ than ‘cult,’ Ween doesn’t leave out a single essential of ‘classic’ song from their repertoire. The performances of those songs found here are classic too – how else could Ween work in a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “All Of My Love” and have it bolster – not overshadow – the likes of “Voodoo Lady,” “The H.I.V. Song,” “Mutilated Lips,” “Pork Roll Egg And Cheese” and “Take Me Away” if they weren’t strong enough to keep up? Through each of these songs, Ween pushes the hardest they ever have to present the kind of show that every fan’s dreams are made of and has the added benefit of being able to attract new interest as well (I have personally won fans for the band in a totally third-person way by having this album on in the background at parties – some beg me to burn them a copy before they leave) from the previously unfamiliar.

The footage on the DVD included with the set proves to be revelatory too. Shot from multiple angles with multiple cameras (one of the bonus features allows viewers to change cameras to get a different perspective on some songs), viewers are able to actually able to see the drops of sweat run off of Mickey Melchiondo as he stretches the bridge of “Voodoo Lady” into a rapturous jam and Claude Coleman’s intricate and effortless brutality on his kit (just watch the difference in styles between “Roses Are Free” and “Mutilated Lips”) that removes any question of why he is one of the foremost drummers in rock. Even with that said though, the players don’t steal the show from singer Aaron Freeman. Because Live In Chicago stretches to include material dating back as far as  The Crucial Squeegie Lip and all the way up through Quebec, it requires a metric tonne of different vocal tones and stylistic shifts from Freeman (none of Melchiondo’s vocal turns appear here), but he gladly accepts the challenge and delivers every note using every character voice required and, if such transitions are laborious, it doesn’t show at all; those elastic vocal chords (the way his voice dips in “Spinal Meningitis” is profound) never falter and, even when the original recordings of the songs may have had some effects treatment (“Spinal Meningitis,” “Ocean Man”) the singer augments his parts so that they’re not necessary and it’s no less satisfying.

While the release of a live album (or a series of them, in cases like Pearl Jam’s) isn’t uncommon, seldom if ever has such a comprehensive examination of a band’s biggest and best repertoire been distilled into one set. With Live In Chicago, Ween illustrates that they are indeed capable of performing their biggest songs marathon-style without an army of backing musicians or additional, pre-taped accompaniment; all they need is three very gifted sidemen confident enough to try anything – and it all works here.

Shinola Vol. 1
(Chocodog, 2005)
Okay, it sounds silly to say it, but the motivations behind the release of Shinola have never really been clearly defined. Given the quality of the material that Ween has collected for Shinola Vol. 1, a case could certainly be made for the criminality of the fact that the album has never been – and, outside of the odd new and used shop where someone fell short of cash –  never will be made available in stores. Here and there, brief sparks of brown brilliance flash through along the way but, at the same time, truly god awful mood-killers and half-formed goo dog the proceedings too. The one guiding principle here is that Shinola takes the brownest after-birth from Ween’s catalogue and amplifies it all as only a group of outtakes can but with a difference; the great songs really seem to clash against the lousy ones. The lousy songs that appear in Shinola’s runtime are easy to pick out and, in some cases, remain superfluous (“Big Fat Fuck” and “How High Can You Fly” don’t fare any better here than they did on Craters Of The Sac) but happily they are in the minority as tunes like “Israel” and “Gabrielle” rank among the defining lost gems of the band’s career and, with a slightly larger spectrum to work with, “Monique The Freak” has the chance to ride a groove unencumbered from its previous release as an MP3-only offering. The problem Shinola runs into (because there is certainly some material here worth investigation) is two-fold: first is the lack of wide availability of the album (so it really never had the chance to get legs under it) and, second, while there are indeed some great songs here, the construct of the album in general is pretty flimsy; while the good songs are REALLY GOOD, the tedium that the poor ones succumb to is all-consuming and throws a damper on any progress the album makes. Approach at your peril; more than any other title in Ween’s catalogue, Shinola Vol. 1 is an album you’ll either love dearly or hate with a passion normally reserved for cancer or the concept of mass genocide.

The Friends  EP
 (Chocodog, 2007)
As any long-time fan or critic can (and will) tell you, Ween’s EPs tend to be very touch-and-go, mixed-bag affairs. As allmusic.com critic Jason Ankeny said in is review of the Voodoo Lady EP, “Ween’s EPs are a crapshoot – given the staggering number of songs the duo’s produced across the years, there’s bound to be as many rare gems as clunkers.” With that admission in hand, it would be easy to dismiss The Friends EP as being acutely fluffy even by Ween standards but, after the longest absence from regular studio work in the band’s history (beating out the stretch between White Pepper and Quebec by about a year – but they also changed labels again in that time), they had to start somewhere – so they keep it light for these five songs.

…Well, they keep it lighter than most would expect to be possible when approaching a subject as touchy as the “homo rainbow,” and they approach it with good humour intact.

From the opening, totally synthetic, take on the title track (which would also appear on La Cucaracha – albeit with a different mix, released the same year), Ween ups their plastic quotient for The Friends EP and puts an unflinchingly ecstatic spin on songs like the bossa nova-ed “Light Me Up,” reggae-ed “King Billy” and shmaltzy ballad “Slow Down Boy.” In each case and at every turn, the cartoonish melodrama takes the piss out of any and all things romantic (“Slow Down Boy” could easily play on karaoke night at any bar in Japan) but the hook buried slightly below the surface is that each song is sung to a member of the same sex. While such fare has always been on the periphery of Ween’s albums, The Friends EP marks the first time such sentiments have taken centre stage and, given the mostly-realtime-instrument-free arrangements of the songs (there is a guitar in “I Got To Put The Hammer Down,” but it’s fairly static), such sentiments aren’t left with anything to hide behind. Such an obvious mozza ball left hanging out there seems purposefully done to make some listeners uncomfortable (which could be the “We’re coming back…” notice long-time fans would expect after their absence), confuse others accustomed to Ween’s often off-colour come-ons and equally regular hypermasculine deliveries, and delight still more because Ween has proven yet again that they can still find a way to mess with people. Of course, immediately following The Friends EP’s  release, conjecture began to arise on whether Aaron Freeman might be coming out (the questions prompted a still-functioning page on facebook http://www.facebook.com/search/?q=Aaron+Freeman&init=quick#/group.php?gid=94863471682&ref=search&sid=563215312.2635464491..1 ) but, really, who cares? Gay or straight, The Friends EP proves that Ween has yet to lose their ability to throw their fans off-balance AND keep them coming back for more.

La Cucaracha
(Rounder/Chocodog, 2007)
Perhaps because they’d heard somewhere that The Butthole Surfers were once called subversive because they’d signed to a major label twelve years ago and had since signed on to another smaller label that still had major-sized distribution (Surfdog and Universal respectively), in the last five years Ween has hopped between three of the big four record companies. Now allied with Universal, Ween’s newest offering is only really a walnut color; fans will notice that tracks including “Friends,” “Learnin’ To Love” and “The Fruit Man” are all vintage Ween insofar as none of the conventional rules apply and the band has twisted and contorted the sounds on this album masterfully into something uniquely Ween, but the difference here is that half the tracks on La Cucaracha also betray a heavy Zappa and Magic Band influence. Songs like “My Own Bare Hands” and “Object” bear the marks of Frank Zappa’s black humour and the acrobatic opening instrumental (“Fiesta”) betrays a newfound gift for arrangement not previously heard on the older, more home grown-sounding Ween albums. Likewise, “Sweetheart In The Summer” indulges Zappa’s perennial love affair with cock-eyed love songs.

Obviously, those songs that tempt these generic fates are derailed by the band’s DIY ethos so they sound off-center, but on La Cucaracha the arrangements and instrumentation support them in a straight rather than rubber-faced way. It’s actually really, really exhilarating to hear Ween put their money where their collective mouth is and illustrate their capabilities without sounding like they’re just fucking around. Fans may balk, but La Cucaracha is a pretty incredible album because it plays both sides of the fence: again, like Zappa and Captain Beefheart, it’s both goofy and accomplished – that makes it a landmark for the band in some strange way.

At Cat’s Cradle, 1992
(Chocodog, 2008)
If all you’ve seen of Ween from a live performance standpoint is the fantastic DVD released in 2004 that presents an inspired set by the current line-up of Mickey Melchiondo (aka Dean Ween) on guitar, Aaron Freeman (aka Gene Ween) on vocals and guitar, drummer Claude Coleman (also known as very possibly the most gifted percussionist on Earth today), bassist Dave Dreiwitz and keyboardist Glenn McClelland, you’ve seen a pretty incredible show, but you don’t know the whole story. Without going into a spectacular amount of detail, Ween did not come out readymade as the dynamic outfit that took the stage in Chicago early in the millennium – it took a lot of work to get to that point. In the embryonic years (from their first show in 1987 until the release of Chocolate And Cheese in 1994), Ween had a line-up of just Gene and Dean who, along with a Yamaha tape deck stocked with pre-recorded drums and bass parts that they’d play to fill out the mixes on stage, were determined to win converts to the band’s banner by presenting a performance piece of playful and infectious perversion. In a word, particularly in the early years, Ween was weird; in 1992, when Ween took the stage at Cat’s Cradle, they’d already been together long enough to be incredibly tight on stage (a state also necessitated by a virtue of a rhythm section supplied by playback) but that doesn’t mean that the audience in attendance wasn’t trying to figure out what they were looking at (a fact evidenced by tentative applause and bemused crowd noise between tracks) for the duration of this performance.

Listening to this show sixteen years after the fact reveals that there was far more at work in the set than anyone could have realized at the time. Playing songs that, in some cases, wouldn’t be recorded or released for another five years (“Buckingham Green” would eventually appear on The Mollusk in 1997) what will make fans get all gooey in the pants here is the promise of hearing early, rough versions of classic Ween songs performed incredibly raw and unadorned, but still shining with a surprisingly well-produced and polished presentation.

As good natured as it is though, it’s easy to understand why audiences might have been a little worried if they walked into the venue just as the band was getting started with “Big Jilm.” There’s something sinister lurking in the undercurrents of Freeman and Melchiondo’s elasticized harmonies and walking-pace tempo that isn’t quite scary or ominous so much as plainly disconcerting . Even so, listeners familiar with Ween’s brand of mania still find themselves drawn to the lean arrangements; long-time fans might even say that it sounds a bit like a rehearsal.

As soon as that vibe takes hold and the swaggering “Never Squeal On Th’ Pimp” kicks over, the hooks are in and anyone listening is up for the ride. There are no dramatic pauses or drawn-out stretches of audience interaction anywhere in the set (according to Melchiondo’s memoirs in the liner notes, Ween sets circa ‘92 were an hour long at most – presumably because that’s how much playtime their backing cassette held) and absolutely no jamming which makes for a decidedly clean and straightforward set, and whether that works for listeners depends entirely upon where they feel the magic lies in the band’s music: is it in the spry and cartoony machinations that Ween fabricates in the studio or in the epic presentations they’d give live later with a full band? No matter what a listener’s answer to that question might be, it’s difficult for a long-time fan (there’s little chance that the uninitiated in the crowd that night didn’t have an eyebrow cocked and this isn’t where those that have never listened to the band before should start either) to find fault with the versions of “Pork Roll, Egg And Cheese,” “The Goin’ Gets Tough From The Getgo,” “Buckingham Green, “Don’t Get 2 Close 2 My Fantasy” and “Reggaejunkiejew” that appear here. While Freeman hadn’t yet developed the prime vocal chops that he’d later make jaws drop with on stage, he was obviously well on his way and there are honest-to-god epiphanies to be had in arresting moments like “Nan” that catch even seasoned fans off-guard.

In a lot of ways, the DVD portion of this set functions in the same way as the CD, With just the duo on stage, the proceedings have a consistent (because these songs are culled from three shows on two continents, so it stands to reason that it was a recurring theme) sort of Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney “Let’s put on a show!” indie performance that’s impossibly silly on one hand, but mythical on the other as, with obvious obstacles and limitations in front of them, Ween still pulls off some pretty incredible (and incredibly bizarre) and captivating performances here.

As of present day, it’s difficult to find anyone that hears them who won’t admit that Ween is a great live band, but the verdict might be out regarding whether or not they’ve always been a good stage show for folks that know how they started but didn’t see or hear it back when. Cat’s Cradle solves that problem handily; the set illustrates that Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo didn’t need all the help they have now to put on a mind-blowing/fucking show, it was already present and the roster of personnel has only grown in direct proportion to the size of the venues they play and the level of acclaim they’ve received in the years since.


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